Commonplaces: Teenagers, Reading, and Language

9781626360921In times past, readers kept books in which they recorded favorite items from their reading. These “commonplace books” were sometimes later collected, offering a view into the mind and habits of the reader even as the thoughts of the original writers were shared. This year, I intend to start sharing some of my commonplaces with you. Why wait to share them?

The first comes from a very intriguing book of essays by Jim Flynn, who taught for almost six decades at the University of Otago, New Zealand’s oldest university. Flynn is an avid and careful reader, and in The Torchlight List, he offers what he calls a global “road map” for reading.

In his first chapter, he writes of his own reading experience and compares that experience to the reality of today’s teenagers, including the young people who arrive on the campuses of the world’s most prestigious universities. To put the matter bluntly: they are not serious readers, and this is especially true when it comes to great literature. Flynn is surely right when he argues that an individual who reads well but has no college education is better educated than one who does not read seriously and widely but holds university degrees.

“Ask students what novelist they like best and you get a blank, or some reference to the author of airport trash,” he laments.

He then makes an observation that every parent, educator, pastor, youth minister, and teenager should note carefully. He distinguishes between active and passive language. Active language is the language people use to initiate a conversation. Passive language consists of language an individual can understand, but does not (or cannot) use to initiate a conversation.

Note carefully, then, what he says next:

In sum, in 1948 teenagers could both understand and use the vocabularies of their parents. In 2006 they could understand their parents but, to a surprising degree, could not initiate a conversation using adult language.

Sound familiar? I thought so.

He also observes that teenagers of the past “wanted to become adults and enjoy the privileges of adults.” Now, however, adolescents have their own distinct subculture that “is so attractive that some young adults want to remain in it through their twenties and even their thirties.”

He does not write with scorn nor does he believe that the damage is always permanent. But he writes with a prophetic and wise voice that has to do as much with life as with books—and he warns of a life without books.

Think and consider.


Jim Flynn, The Torchlight List: Around the World in 200 Books (New York: Skyhorse Books, 2013).

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